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Agent of death

Front Line - September 10-23, 2011

On the 50th anniversary of the use of the deadly Agent Orange in Vietnam, an international conference seeks justice for its victims.

N.D. Jayaprakash The shocking images of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York are well etched in the minds of almost everyone who had access to a television set at that time.

Similarly, all those who were adults or were in their teens in the late 1960s and early 1970s and had access to radio or newspapers must have heard or read about the Vietnam War. Some of them may be familiar with the term "Agent Orange" and may even have come across some fleeting references to the same.

However, the devastating effect of the chemical warfare that the United States military unleashed on Vietnam from 1961 to 1971 is hardly ever in the news, despite being hundreds of times deadlier than the 9/11 attack in terms of the scale of death and devastation and long-term impact. This report is an attempt to shed light on some aspects of this critical issue that has gone largely unnoticed and unaddressed to date.

The Second International Conference of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin was held in Hanoi from August 7 to 10 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first use of herbicides in Vietnam by the US military during the civil war between the Ho Chi Minh-led communist regime of North Vietnam and the US-propped regime of South Vietnam. (The First International Conference was held in 2006.) The US began ruthlessly using chemical weapons on Vietnam (notably in areas theoretically under the "protection" of the US-backed regime) exactly 16 years after President Harry Truman had shocked the world with his decision to test nuclear weapons by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. The thoughtless use of these chemical weapons, especially the one in the form of a herbicide called Agent Orange, which contained trace amounts of a by-product called TCDD (dioxin - one of the most toxic chemicals known to humans), had devastating effects. (See "The Effects of Herbicides in South Vietnam"; Report of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., 1974; and Jeanne Stellman, et al; Nature, April 17, 2003.) No less than 80 million litres of herbicides was sprayed over Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, which effectively destroyed over three million hectares of forests, mangroves and cultivable land and devastated the lives of more than three million people in Vietnam alone.

More than 200 delegates, half of whom were from 24 other countries, attended the conference. They included Agent Orange victims from not only Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia but also the US, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Thailand. Victims of chemical warfare from Sardasht (Iran), Marivan (Iran) and Halabja (Iraq) and victims of chemical disasters from Seveso (1976) and Bhopal (1984) also attended the conference.

Sanjay Verma, who lost his parents and six siblings in the Union Carbide pesticide factory disaster and in its aftermath, along with this writer represented the Bhopal gas victims at the event.

The fact that US and allied soldiers also became victims of Agent Orange testifies to the recklessness with which the US military sprayed the herbicide. The most striking example of this is the case of the Zumwalt family. Admiral Zumwalt, as commander of the US Naval Forces in Vietnam between 1968 and 1970 and as the one who commanded the flotilla of Swift Boats that patrolled its coasts, harbours and rivers, was instrumental in increasing the area and intensity of Agent Orange spraying. His son, Lieutenant Zumwalt, who was the commander of one of the Swift Boats that patrolled the areas that were worst hit by Agent Orange, died of cancer in 1988 at the age of 42. His grandson, Russell Zumwalt (born in 1977), is mentally retarded. Their unenviable plight is recounted in a moving account titled My Father, My Son (Macmillan, 1986). Lt. Zumwalt believed that it was Agent Orange that had caused his cancer and his son's severe learning disabilities.

Heather Bowser, a second-generation American victim (whose father, Bill Morris, had served as a soldier in Vietnam in 1968 and died of an Agent Orange-related disease in 1998) was born without her right leg below the knee, the big toe on her left foot and several fingers. Heather, 38, the first second-generation US victim to interact with her counterparts in Vietnam, was there to seek justice for Agent Orange victims. Lawyers, scientists and social activists and the Ambassadors of China, Greece, Iran, South Africa and Venezuela were among others who attended the conference.

Rosemarie Hvhn-Mizo of Germany and Masako Sakata of Japan, who are now in their early 60s, had nothing to do with the war in Vietnam. It was their misfortune that they married US war veterans who had served in Vietnam in areas that were sprayed with Agent Orange. Their husbands, George Mizo and Greg Davis, who realised that they were suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and went back to Vietnam to seek justice for the victims of Agent Orange, subsequently died of cancer in 2002 and 2003 respectively. Rosemarie, as president of the International Committee of the Vietnam Friendship Village Project which supports Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, and Masako, as a documentary film-maker, are carrying on the struggle to seek justice for all Agent Orange victims. They attended the conference. It is not known whether President John F. Kennedy, who first sanctioned the use of herbicides, was aware of the presence of dioxin in them and about the nature of their toxicity. Official reports have tried to argue that at the time these herbicides were permitted to be used in Vietnam, they were in fact sold commercially in the US (The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the War in Vietnam - 1971-1973; Willard J. Webb and Walter S. Poole; page 378.) In other words, these herbicides were legally produced and used in the US However, there was one crucial difference: there was a wide variation in the amount of dioxin present in the batch of Agent Orange that was sold domestically and in the consignment that was exported to Vietnam. It appears that "in domestic preparations it is present in much lower concentrations, 0.05 ppm (parts per million), as opposed to peaks of 50 ppm in stock shipped to Vietnam. Therefore, dioxin contamination of Agent Orange was up to 1,000 times higher than in domestic herbicides" (The Ecologist; Hugh Warwick; Sept-Oct 1998; page 264.)

While 0.05 ppm is considered the "safe" level for domestic sale of Agent Orange in the US, the manufacturers (Dow Chemical, Monsanto, and five other companies) and the US administration consciously manufactured and exported Agent Orange to Vietnam with unacceptable levels of toxicity. They knew very well that using herbicides with high levels of dioxin would cause irreparable harm to the Vietnamese people who happened to be in the vicinity of the spraying area and would result in widespread destruction of the exposed environment. Thus, the US and the manufacturers of the herbicide knowingly committed an abhorrent war crime - a crime against humanity - for which they have to be held accountable and punished. However, Dow has conveniently placed the entire blame on the US administration by propounding the specious plea that: "As a nation at war, the US government compelled a number of companies to produce Agent Orange under the Defence Production Act. The government specified how it would be produced and controlled its use" (http://www.dow.com).

Monsanto has taken the following position: "We believe that the adverse consequences alleged to have arisen out of the Vietnam War, including the use of Agent Orange, should be resolved by the governments that were involved" (http://www.monsanto.com/).

The US cannot claim that it had the right to use chemical weapons because it was not a party to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 until 1975. If the signing of international protocols is the yardstick for determining culpability, no action should have been contemplated against terrorists such as Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 attack because he was not a party to any international treaty governing conduct of war.

The US is guilty of wilfully poisoning the people of Vietnam (as well as its own soldiers and those of its allies) and of destroying the environment; it can in no way claim ignorance about the grievous consequences of its action. Thus, there is a strong case for the Government of Vietnam to seek suitable remedy before the International Court of Justice and to highlight the matter before the Non-Aligned Movement, the United Nations General Assembly, and every available international forum for eliciting appropriate support for its just cause.

In view of the consistent protest from North Vietnam and the mounting evidence about the high toxicity of dioxin, concerned people and organisations across the US, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), expressed their firm opposition to the use of dioxin-based herbicides. As a result, "On 15 April, 1970, the Secretaries of Health, Education, Welfare, Interior and Agriculture announced the suspension of uncontrolled domestic use of herbicides containing 2, 4, 5-T. That same day, the Deputy Secretary of Defence suspended temporarily all use of Orange in military operations pending a more thorough evaluation of the situation." (Webb and Poole; op cit.; page 380). This decision practically ended yet another diabolical and sordid act of the US in the 20th century because the decision was never rescinded.

Considering the enormous level of destruction and devastation that the US had unleashed on Vietnam, at the time of signing the Paris Peace Accord on January 27, 1973, the US made a solemn commitment to undertake necessary action to heal the wounds of war. Under Article 21 of the Accord, it pledged that: "In pursuance of its traditional policy, the United States will contribute to healing the wounds of war and to post-war reconstruction of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and throughout Indochina" (Webb and Poole; op cit.; page 407). This promise was followed by a letter dated February 1, 1973, in which President Richard Nixon promised that the US would contribute "in the range of $3.25 billion" in post-war reconstruction assistance to Vietnam over a five-year period (Congressional Research Service Report for Congress; Michael F. Marti; Washington, D.C., March 2009; page 4). The US has failed to comply with this commitment despite the National Academy of Sciences' report affirming in 1974 that: "It is the committee's firm belief that rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts should ...be undertaken as rapidly as conditions permit... since any delay will make its accomplishment more difficult" (Report of the National Academy of Sciences; op cit.; page 41 [s-16]).

Considering the enormity of the task of detoxifying three million hectares of affected land area and of medically, economically and socially rehabilitating three million dioxin victims, the proposed plan of the "US-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin" to tackle the problem over the next 10 years (2010-2019) with a total budget of just $300 million is rather a far-fetched one (http://www.aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/agent-orange). It amounts to an average expenditure of just $5 per dioxin victim for meeting all their needs every year and another $5 per hectare for detoxifying the affected land annually. Effectively, the Dialogue Group's proposed plan belittles the enormity and gravity of the problem while making a pretence that effective steps are being taken to remedy the same.

US representatives on the Dialogue Group, who include senior members of the Ford Foundation and the Aspen Institute, did not attend the Second International Congress despite claiming that the Dialogue Group was set up to support the cause of Agent Orange victims.

It is, indeed, ironical that the US which had no qualms about spending an estimated $658 billion (at 2008 prices) for waging the Vietnam war and in spending an almost equal amount for waging the Iraq war is so financially hard-pressed when it comes to the question of raising requisite funds for healing the wounds of war (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/07/25/national/main4296368.shtml, July 16, 2009). Retribution in the case of the 9/11 attack has been dealt with on an entirely different level. This was despite the fact that the impact of the chemical warfare on Vietnam was hundreds of times greater than the impact of the 9/11 attack in terms of human loss and environmental damage.

The US has either arrested or killed most of the alleged perpetrators of the 9/11 attack. Over $38 billion has been paid as compensation to the 9/11 victims, including $8.7 billion for 2,880 cases of death (at an average of $3.1 million each) and $23.3 billion as compensation for property damage. Injury cases, numbering about 2,680, were also paid over $1 billion as compensation, which works out to an average of over $373,000 each (http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/defenseandsecurity/a/randon911.htm and http://www.justice.gov/final_report.pdf). Whereas, in the case of the Agent Orange attack no one has been arrested or prosecuted in the past 50 years.

Of the 105,000 US war veterans who served in Vietnam and reportedly suffered from the effects of Agent Orange, 52,000 have been awarded a total compensation of just $197 million at an average of about $3,800 each (http://www.vba.va.gov/bln/21/benefits/herbicide/AOno2.htm). The double standards in the award of compensation even to its own citizens are evident on the face of it. Vietnam has been promised a total of just $300 million in the next 10 years for remediation of the affected land and as medical assistance. Under the circumstances, despite President Kennedy's questionable role in ordering the use of herbicides on Vietnam, it has to be noted that he was the one who actually tried for a rapprochement with that country as early as 1962 (The Boston Globe; June 6, 2005). Not only was Kennedy against the escalation of the war in Vietnam but he initiated the process of rapprochement with the Soviet Union through what became known as the McCloy-Zorin Accord on General and Complete Disarmament, which was signed on September 20, 1961 (http://www.nuclearfiles.org/). On December 20, 1961, the McCloy-Zorin Accord was adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly (http://www.un.org/depts/dhl/resguide/r16.htm [A/RES/1722(XVI)]) and serious negotiations began under the aegis of the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) for implementing it. However, after the assassination of Kennedy, the entire process was reversed at the instance of the military industrial complex, which felt threatened by the prospect of world peace if the disarmament process progressed. Kennedy's assassination, thus, cleared the way for US combat troops to land in Vietnam and for the escalation of the war.

The Second International Conference, in its appeal (www.vava.org.vn), called upon the US administration and US companies such as Dow and Monsanto to assume responsibility for the horrendous crime they committed against the people of Vietnam and against the US' own soldiers and those of its allies. The appeal noted that the US and the said companies had an abiding duty to take appropriate remedial measures to detoxify the affected environment and to provide medical, economic and social rehabilitation for all the victims.

Unfortunately, the appeal is silent on the role of the Government of Vietnam and other governments and peoples concerned in pressuring the US administration to fulfil its duties and responsibilities towards the victims of Agent Orange and in taking the U.S to task for the war crimes it committed against the people of Vietnam and against humanity in general.

Saddam Hussein, as an ally of the US, had used a variety of chemical weapons (including phosgene, sarin and mustard gas) primarily on the Kurdish people during the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-1988.

[N.D. Jayaprakash is Co-Convener, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS) and Joint Secretary, Delhi Science Forum.]

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